Parenting a Child Affected by a Traumatic Event

By Joannie DeBrito, Ph.D., LCSW, LMFT
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A father comforting a daughter
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While it’s hard to reconcile the image of a loving, righteous God in the midst of tragic loss, we parents need to stay focused on the sovereignty of God.

Earlier in my career, I was a first responder on a crisis response team, lending mental health support after natural disasters and other traumatic events. I am saddened when I hear about hurricanes, fires, and tornadoes that have destroyed lives and property; lost businesses and people hurt during riots; acts of random violence or unprovoked attacks against groups of innocent people. It reminds me that another community and its children have had to cope with the aftermath of a traumatic event.

For those affected, a traumatic event becomes part of their life story. But it doesn’t stop there. Tragedies leave an imprint on community members and those who, for whatever reason, strongly identify with the victims or the perpetrator(s).

The way parents and caregivers react can help calm fears, create a supportive environment, instill hope, and lessen potential long-term effects on their children. While no one can erase the traumatic event, children can learn to cope with the pain experienced it has caused.

Calming Fears

The most normal reaction for parents following a traumatic event is anxiety around two questions:

Is My Child Safe From Being a Victim of a Traumatic Event?

The potential for exposure to a traumatic incident is different in each community. However, a natural disaster or act of violence is not likely to harm or kill most children. In most areas of the United States, there are early warning systems, emergency preparedness plans, and restrictions that keep most children away from potentially harmful environments. Ruminating on the possibility that your family may face harm will only raise your level of anxiety.

On the other hand, taking action reduces anxiety. To be proactive as parents, we can ask community leaders and local law enforcement officials about plans to protect families from traumatic events. We can also prepare for unexpected events as recommended and teach our children strategies for preventing and avoiding exposure to trauma. If our children are exposed, it’s most helpful to our kids if we respond by:

  • quickly getting them to a safe environment
  • allowing them to talk and communicate their honest emotions and
  • seeking help from a physician or licensed medical health professional if they are not able to eat, sleep, or function normally.

Could My Child Have Been Somehow Responsible?

Not many parents would outwardly admit it, but this is a common thought after a traumatic event. Parents who have been coping with children who have demonstrated some fairly typical acting out behavior at home sometimes wonder if their child might have started a fire, for example, or participated in a violent act in their community. While it’s possible, kids who are disrespectful to parents or push against limits and boundaries at home are usually not those who participate in damaging property or causing direct harm to other people. Typically, kids who contribute to traumatic events in their neighborhoods show specific patterns. Some of these patterns may include destroying property or hurting pets and family members. These patterns often appear before branching out to wreak havoc outside of their homes.

Longstanding Patterns

Often, when a child is the perpetrator of a traumatic event, the preliminary report is that he was just a “nice, average kid who got along fine with everyone.” These stories typically come from interviews with peers or neighbors who have spent very little time with the child. A full investigation into the young perpetrator’s life usually turns up evidence of longstanding patterns of physical, psychological, social, emotional, and academic problems. It’s typically not a single problem that leads to their participation in a traumatic event. Instead, a combination of factors may contribute to the issue. Some of these include diagnosed or undiagnosed mental illness such as Conduct Disorder, violence in the family, child abuse, and substance abuse.

It is hard to predict which struggling youth might participate in causing a traumatic event. If you have reason to believe that your child may be responsible or has a desire to be destructive, consider having him or her assessed by a licensed physician or mental health professional.

Creating a Supportive Environment

A person’s “fight or flight” response kicks in when exposed to a traumatic event. Adrenaline flows, and they set their sights on survival. That depletes a lot of energy. Individuals feel drained physically and emotionally once the incident is over. Support then begins with emphasizing and modeling good self-care.

Parents need to remind themselves and their kids to eat, sleep, drink plenty of water, exercise, and, if possible, get some sunshine each day. Traumatic events can deplete the appetite, so those affected by trauma may better tolerate small amounts of food every few hours.

After trauma, people typically forget to drink water. Hydration is essential for healthy digestion and allows rehydration. Much of the immediate help I provided as a disaster mental health responder related to getting victims necessities like food, water, blankets, and so on. (The counseling typically came later.)

Also, rigorous daily exercise gives people a healthy outlet for anger, frustration, and fear. A hard-fought game of basketball, a long run, or a vigorous workout can help avoid many potential retaliatory acts. Outdoor activity on a sunny day is incredibly helpful. Sunshine provides Vitamins K, D, and B vitamins that fight stress. Furthermore, reasonable amounts of exposure to the sun tend to make people feel tired. Sleep is essential after a traumatic event.

Responding to Emotional Reactions After A Traumatic Event

We all have different emotional reactions to traumatic events. These can range from complete denial and emotional shut-down to erupting in crying fits and panic attacks. As a parent, you can model emotional management with these strategies:

Listen Without Judgement

Allow for lack of emotion or frequent venting without judging. We all need to be allowed to feel whatever we feel. It’s normal for different family members to have very different reactions to trauma. Dramatic and loud expressions of emotions can be healthy. However, if they put someone in danger, they need to be curtailed.

Encourage Discussion. 

Allowing kids to process emotions out loud helps give clues about how to help. They’re turning to us parents for comfort. We should reserve our raw discussions with other adults, not our kids. Parents need to be honest and authentic, but also considerate of age-appropriate communication.

Find a Balance Between Structured Activities and Relaxation. 

Continue to follow through on structured activities known to reduce stress and anxiety. Allow for time away from routines that tend to cause stress.

Engage in Activities That Evoke Positive Emotions. 

Participation in favorite hobbies or satisfying events can help people regain a balance between positive and negative emotions.

Give Some Space, but Stay Connected. 

Traumatized individuals sometimes distance themselves from loved ones. These individuals believe they are damaged and fear that they will transfer that damage to others. Striking a balance between creating some space between family members and staying connected helps maintain those anxiety-reducing relationships.

Pray Regularly to Express Your Emotions to God and Ask for Help in Coping.

While you are praying for yourself, your family, victims, and their families and friends remember to pray for the family members of the perpetrator(s). Their suffering is complicated and extraordinary. They may have had little to do with the decision their family member made to contribute to a traumatic event or hurt other people

Instill Hope

“Why did this happen?” “Where was God?” Those are natural questions after a tragic event. It might help to discuss these questions with mentors, pastors, or trusted friends before answering kids.

While it’s hard to reconcile the image of a loving, righteous God during tragic loss, we parents need to stay focused on God’s sovereignty. The One who was killed violently by others has empathy for others who experience unexpected disasters, trauma, and violence.

Hold Off on the Christian-ese

Well-meaning Christian parents tend to offer answers in the form of Bible verses, prayers, and the suggestion to attend church. However, that can backfire. Traumatized kids may hear such solutions as discounting their real, raw emotions.

If kids request to do those things, outstanding. However, parents need to allow time and space for grieving after a childhood trauma. At the right time, when you intuitively sense openness to spiritual encouragement, use scripture, prayer, and fellowship with other Christians as tools for healing.

Also, we parents need to remind kids that God never leaves us, that our only hope is in Christ Jesus, and that God was not the cause of the tragedy. Instead, the forces of nature were at play, or a human being chose to harm the property and people in a community. The question of why God allowed it to happen can open up many opportunities for discussions about the place of human suffering in God’s plan. Remember, the timing of these discussions deserves careful consideration.

Finally, parents must answer the most anxiety-producing questions and take steps to manage their own emotions first. Only then can they effectively listen to their kids’ questions and help them process fear and frustration.

Further Resources

The preceding information may not have answered all of your questions if you and your family have experienced a traumatic event. Therefore, if you have questions related to your specific circumstance or you are dealing with childhood trauma, please don’t hesitate to call Focus on the Family at 1-855-771 HELP (4357) to speak with a counselor and receive a referral to a Christian counselor in your area.

© 2018, 2020 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved.

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Understand How to Respect and Love your Son Well

Why doesn’t my son listen to me? Have you ever asked that question? The truth is, how you see your son and talk to him has a significant effect on how he thinks and acts. That’s why we want to help you. In fact, we’ve created a free five-part video series called “Recognizing Your Son’s Need for Respect” that will help you understand how showing respect, rather than shaming and badgering, will serve to motivate and guide your son.
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